Sub-$1250 DAC w/ built-in Headphone Amp


I currently have an entry level headphone listening stack, that I'd like to upgrade for both headphone listening, but to also include in a HiFi system stack when expanding my horizon to speakers. 

Currently have:
DAC = 'Ol DAC' from JDS Labs
Amp = Atom from JDS Labs

I am a bit overloaded with the options at this price point, but I know am looking for a smoother/richer sound from DAC as opposed to an analytical/etched sound. The following DACs come to mind - would any of you recommend one over the other? Source is primarily USB w/ Tidal MQA paired w/ HD58X Jubilee's.

- Mytek Liberty DAC II
- RME ADI-2 DAC FS
- DA-Art Aquilla II DAC
- SMSL M500 DAC
- Schiit Bifrost 2 (w/ separate headphone amp? or other multi-bit DAC?)
- Other?

Further - should I expect a substantial sound quality boost from my current set up?
uwrwilke
rme for sure - get the one with latest chip

leave yourself a week to read the manual :)

i haven't heard your current dac but the rme via headphones is very very good sounding
Schiit Gungnir I own one and have compared the whole range while searching for a friend. We chose the Yggi for him. The Gungnir multibit gets you most of the Yggi for half price. The thing with Schiit products are they are generally really excellent value for the money. You have to pay a lot for smooth and natural amd detailed. I would not be surprised if this is the only DAC for this small amount of money that will get you there. I also have an Ayer $5K, and an Audio Reasearch $17K, before that a Sim $18K. The Gungnir.

oops, I read your description and forget your title...I thought you just wanted a DAC... until I saw Mr. Self Righteous’ comment below.

I still recommend Schiit. If your pretty sure you are one and done or have space requirements. Then a combined box is a great choice. But there are a lot of benefits to separates. You can change the character of amplification by swapping just the amp... tube / solid state. If you decide to keep upgrading you can do one at a time and learn. Anyway, Schiit are reslly good prices products. cost is a guide to sound quality there. Might also look at the Woo WA7... Woo makes wonderful detailed yet warm amps.

A major question you do have to keep in mind is the headphones impedance, the higher the impedance in ohms the more power (current) the amp needs. Another reason it can be good to have an option to swap out the amp... if your tastes changes, you buy headphones requiring more power.

op is looking for a dac with built in headphone amp... we should assume he is not mistaken or kidding
ghdprentice: On that Gungnir Multibit note; maybe Jotenheim w/ Multibit DAC?

jjss49: no joke - is this an unusual request?
Many DAC / Amps are available... it is not unusual. But since you are looking to upgrade already... you are likely to be happy with an upgrade and spur you on to wonder more. Then an integrated can be a liability. Since you are on this forum you are already curious. 
op

jjss49: no joke - is this an unusual request?

not at all! enjoy!
Matrix Mini-i-3 Pro. A good DAC with headphone though I used a Topping A90 headphone amp instead of the Matrix DAC's headphone amp. In fact, I never heard the DAC headphone amp since I use XLR. The DAC itself is rather good. Not warm more neutral sounding.
Black Ice Audio FX Tube DAC DSD WiFi (has built in headphone amp).
Only heard the RME which I have and it’s very very good. The awesome EQ and features I believe makes it a big extra advantage over the others. 
One of the few pieces I’ve bought new over the years and felt I got more than I paid for. 
Ahh I see you need MQA which the RME does not currently support. 
The black ice dac above is a really great smooth dynamic unit. Not sure about mqa or quality of its headphone amp. Actually thinking about picking another one up as a 2nd dac. 
I have not heard it but read about it a lot. I would be very curious about the Black Ice unit. Used, here, $600. https://www.usaudiomart.com/details/649714940-black-ice-fx-tube-dac-dsd-wifi/
i have my fx tube dac still... after reading the stuff about the shootout in arizona -- bought it stock sounded very musical but somewhat rolled off and veiled with good tubes in it (stock chinese tubes turn up the treble some, but a little grainy) then sent to chris j/wally to upgrade level 2 mod - comes back cleaner more transparent more extended - sounds right with proper, good old stock ax7’s in it but the treble can still be a lil problematic (sibilant) now that caps and wiring have delivered excellent extension - maybe the thing needs a thousand hours of break in lol...

sibilance not as bad as dena ares2 or bifrost mb, but still there on some material - tried various cabling...

so overall i like the mhdt and audio mirror (with tube upgrades) more, or the lovely older mf trivista or ava fet topp dacs more than the fx for ease musicality and insight without force feeding treble detail -- but i haven’t thrown in the towel yet on the fx

i am not a headphone guy so can’t comment on how good the hp output is... but that lil volume control is not the greatest... imo best to leave it on full blast for most clarity and control volume elsewhere


You may be able to find a used Sony TA-ZH1ES within your budget.  It's a fantastic headphone amp with a really good DAC.  I have about a dozen headphones, many of them "high-end", but one of my favorite pairings is with my Sennheiser HD-6XX.  It doesn't support MQA, but the sound quality will be much better than what you have now and you won't miss MQA.

Of the ones you've mentioned, I owned the Mytek Liberty (not the II) and found it very analytical and digital sounding.  Its headphone amp is not close to the Sony.  The Bifrost 2 is a great value for its price, but no headphone amp and it also has more of a digital edge to it than the Sony.
It's a lot cheaper than what you listed, but I would maybe consider the Topping DX7 Pro.  It uses very good clocks (the Accusilicon).  Then replace the two headphone amp op amps with Burson V6 Vivid and you have your discrete output stage.
How about a used Ayre Codex?
MQA is the last thing I’d worry about. My RME without MQA walks all over the DAC in my Bluesound Vault 2 comparing against MQA files and not and that was before upgrading the power supply.
First, I’d recommend dumping Tidal and getting Qobuz — it’s cheaper, sounds just as good (and some say better), better user interface, and no need to worry about MQA and all its silly unfolding BS. I dumped Tidal and am much happier with Qobuz. And I’d highly recommend the Soekris 2541 R2R DAC that also has a headphone amp (just make sure it has enough juice for your ‘phones). These multibit DACs tend to have a smoother, totally richer sound that you seem to be looking for. Hope this helps, and best of luck.
For sure Denafrips arias dac, or the very good Black ice audio wifi dac ,put in NOS Raytheon black plate tubes a super dac for under a grand with tubes.
@oldears

+1

ayre codex sounds just great... more dimensional musical natural than the rme... which is tuned for greater ’clarity’ and ’precision’

asr is asr... i won’t go there... 🤬


Do yourself a big favor and buy the Mytec Liberty II DAC it was first on your list for a reason! And I can say if you give it a great source (like a Aurender streamer) it will not sound digital or cold or anything but amazing! The source matters big time.


Matt M
RME blows the rest of them away. Stay away from Schiit unless you have not heard DSD.
Just got the new Topping D70s MQA version in the mail from HiFiGo today. I got it on sale, and used some points. But they have all sorts of ways to earn points/credits, like joining will get you a $5 credit, and re-tweeting, joining their Instagram etc. Will get you a little more too. It's $650US shipped normally, but if you do all their little stuff you'll probably get like $15, $20 bucks off. Then you an get a sweet Schiit headphone amp, or maybe a topping to match with the rest of your budget. It took right about two weeks from China to Rhode Island for shipping BTW. 

This thing is serious! It is not a mild upgrade from either my Sabaj D5, nor my Audio Gd NFB 28.38 either. Or my Scott Nixon tube DAC, my Starting Point Systems DAC 3, my Topping D10, any of my headphone/DAC dongles, the Grant Fidelity Tube DAC 11 I had, or my Parasound Zdac either. I know that's TMI, but I'm trying to make a point here. None of these compete with this DAC, and I doubt anything at it's price, or less will. I'm not so sure about many more expensive ones either. And I've done constant research on DACs for years now. I know just about everything out there, and seen or read every review I can find. I'm absolutely tireless when it comes to getting my money's worth, and getting the sound I'm looking for without going beyond, and I picked this. That should say a lot right there. 

Check out the review from Soundnews, and then check out his other reviews too. He's dead on when it comes to this DAC. He describes it's sound perfectly. And if that seems like a sound signature you would like. I highly recommend you try it. I bought it because of that review, and am absolutely ecstatic about it! It's exactly what I've been searching for all along. Or really what I've been waiting for, because it just came out recently. Which is another bonus about buying this one. It's the freshest, and will stay that way the longest. And we all know how DACs just keep getting better all the time.

But at some point, you've got to try and find a sweet spot to buy in on one. This is that spot IMHO. It's basically the same sound quality as the D90, and the SMSL 400. Only it doesn't cost as much. It's basically got every option you'll need, including some other DACs don't have, like auto shutoff for instance. It's also 2.5 volts SE, and 5 volts Balanced. It drives my Ncore amp perfectly with no other preamp. Without suffering from a huge loss of dynamics like some DACs do in the same situation. It's got real punch, and a very well built power supply.

Along with a couple of Femto Clocks. MQA support, the best XMOS USB receiver, etc. Just read the review, as there's too much to get into. It was the only one that ticked every box for me, including AES. And even a high performance Bluetooth card for convenience. Yes you can turn it off if you want. And like I mentioned the sound is exactly as he describes it. Similar to an R2R, and absolutely chest pounding bass. I have a MiniDSP SHD Studio, and I'm considering getting another one so I can have 4 matching DSP capable channels of the best sound for the money I've been able to find. It would have cost thousands to get this level of performance a few years ago. And even the packaging is top notch. For whatever that's worth. Lol

Sorry I can't help myself. I'm so excited about this unit! I've finally got the DAC I've been after for about 5 years now. And I want to shout it out to everyone! I just absolutely love this thing. BTW if you're anywhere near the NE Massachusetts, and RI border. I'll be happy to bring it somewhere not too far from me to let you hear it. I mean that too. I'll even bring my 3 other best ones to compare it with, and you'll see. I can't have anyone over right now, but I'll come to you, and wear an N95 mask too. It won't take long. I assure you. I'll just hook the Topping D70s MQA up last, and within a couple of songs you'll be pulling out the CC to order one. Lol

Either way. Good luck. And I recommend you check out the same reviewer's many headphone amp reviews before you make a decision. As he's really into them, and a good reviewer IMO. But it seems you can't ever go too wrong with Schiit in that department. That seems to be their single best item they make, and certainly the best selection IMO. I'm not a HP guy, but I think they're just killing the HP Amp game. And I'm not the only one.

Good luck either way. I hope you find your Unicorn also. ✌️ 
The Bifrost sounds like a great choice (and add a separate amp like Valhalla)! 
I have only heard a Ragnarok (an amp) but that was great so I trust Schiit as a company. They also have many great reviews. I think you will notice big improvement in SQ. I have an iFi Nano and a Dragonfly Black but prefer my separate dac through the Ragnarok. If you go with Valhalla to keep the price down you can always upgrade the amp later and keep the Bifrost.

Other brands to check out could be Okto or iFi (with their more expensive solutions). 

https://www.stereophile.com/content/okto-dac8-stereo-da-processor
https://ifi-audio.com/products/neo-idsd/
Nuprime makes some good gear too, though I think they have just introduced new models...I think some of the confusion mentioned before is that while the title states w/built in headphone amp, the OP also states he is considering a Schiit DAC with separate headphone amp...
Lots of choices here of DACs, so here’s mine. I have Benchmark DAC1 that I have had for many years. It sounds great and can be used as a preamp. The Benchmark DAC1 MSRP was $995, but can now be found for $500 or less. With your budget, you could probably find a DAC2 or a DAC3 that would meet your needs. If you are looking for a smooth sound, I recommend a tube unit. In any case, I think it makes sense to listen to as many as you can before you decide.
The Wadia Di322 is out there in the wild if your patient. Its a good DAC and has headphone capability;  2 coax, 2 optical, 1 USB inputs plus XLR. Does DSD. ESS Saber 9016S implementation. Very similar to the Mcintosh D100 I believe.

Might find one in your price range.
Caveat: Mcintosh group has shelved the Wadia line but support service is available.
The newest Cambridge Dacmagic looks pretty cool...MQA and all. I have an older one and it's great sounding. I also use a Schiit Bifrost 2 with a "Bluenode" 2i for MQA streaming although I rarely use it with headphones. Headphones in bed reading, pair of awesome Grado 325e with a Schiit Magni 3 from an old iPhone...yeah man... 
My 2 cents - used Chord Hugo 1, used/new Okto dac8 Stereo, or new Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt.
Forgot to say, if you plan to mainly listen with headphones you may want to upgrade those before buying a better dac + amp. Something like the Focal Elex, Beyer dt1990, Beyer Amiron Home or the new Drop hd8xx.

Pair this with whatever dac+amp you buy or just get a Dragonfly Cobalt to start with. It can be connected to a big amp but it is impractical to switch cables to headphones all the time.
the chord mojo is awfully impressive for $500
... but can't also act as a preamp. Hence, Chord Hugo 1 used.
Sorry, I am mistaken, the Mojo can be placed into "full-tilt" output mode (100% output to an external device, e.g. not headphones). But it would not provide pre-amp volume control through it's 3.5mm jack.
agree

chord mojo is an insanely good sounding thing

ergonomics are what they are... but for $350-400 the thing is outstanding in its sound quality
I say this only for the sake of the OP - I don't want to beat a dead horse. I was wrong again. It seems that the Mojo can function in a full-fledged pre-amp mode (not just fixed 100% output). Can someone who owns one chime in? I have one that should be here early this week.
It seems that the Mojo can function in a full-fledged pre-amp mode (not just fixed 100% output). Can someone who owns one chime in?


the mojo can be set for fixed or variable output (but not sure i would call it ’preamp mode’...)
My two cents...

TEAC UD-505. Dual mono DAC with w/unbalanced 6.35mm outputs,  1 balanced 4.4mm pentaconn and the ability to use in active ground.

The DAC is amazing f for its price and can upconvert 44.1k to 384k and to DSD 24.5mhz.

The teac can run fixed at 0db or +6db which 2 and 4 vrms each... solid set up. I love mine... us it can take a 10mhz master clock down the road for greater resolution and transparency. 
Ayre Codex. Bit more over your budget (isnt that the case for all of us) but unlikely to find a better dac-amp for less money. If you do, let me know...I tried.
If you're lucky enough to find one: Audio Alchemy DDP-1 + PS 5. I have this combo, it's quite amazing , and includes a preamp

or DDP 2 (Elac) , think 2nd gen
I have to follow up... I received a new/used Mojo/Poly yesterday, and the Mojo is amazing. More refined than the AQ Cobalt, IMO. I have to agree with the other comments... It is outstanding for $500, or any price, really.